Rabbit Rocket: The Volkswagen GTI and the Birth of the Hot Hatch

Introduced in 1976, the Volkswagen Golf GTI was not the first sporty family car nor even the best, but it defined an entire genre of practical performance cars: the ever-popular hot hatch. This week, a brief history of the Volkswagen Golf (Rabbit) and Golf GTI.

1983 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI badge


Although the Volkswagen Beetle was at the height of its American popularity in the late sixties, VW’s fortunes in the European market were flagging. Under the conservative leadership of managing director Heinz Nordhoff, Volkswagen had a hard time looking past the Beetle’s rear-engined, air-cooled format. Its new Type 4 cars had a few modern features, but they were still anachronisms in a market turning increasingly to front-engine, front-wheel-drive compacts like the BMC Mini.

Breaking the rear-engine habit required a drastic cultural shift for VW, which was abetted by Volkswagen’s 1969 acquisition of a controlling interest in NSU. At the time, NSU was hard at work on the K70, a water-cooled, front-engined, FWD compact, which had been highly publicized, but hadn’t yet been introduced because of NSU’s financial problems. VW’s new managing director, Kurt Lotz, who had succeeded Nordhoff in the spring of 1968, decided to refine the K70 design and produce it as a Volkswagen, building it at a new plant in Salzgitter, southwest of VW’s Wolfsburg headquarters.

The K70 was more expensive than originally projected, due in part to many minor changes from the NSU prototype to production version, and it wasn’t a great commercial success, lasting only through 1975. However, it provided useful real-world experience with water cooling and front-wheel drive.

Although Volkswagen’s planned replacement for the 411 was a Porsche-engineered mid-engine family car called project EA266, Volkswagen also began exploring the possibility of developing a water-cooled, front-engine, FWD car to replace the long-serving Beetle. That idea went through several iterations culminating in the EA400, work on which began in 1971. Giorgetto Giugiaro’s Italdesign was hired to style the EA400 and a related coupe, the EA398.

After Lotz resigned that fall, his successor, former Audi-NSU director Rudolf Leiding, canceled the EA266 entirely to focus on the EA400 and a similarly configured but smaller model, which later became the Volkswagen Polo.


The EA398 arrived in February 1974 as the Volkswagen Scirocco, while its EA400 platform-mate followed weeks later, now called Volkswagen Golf. (Volkswagen originally insisted that “Golf” referred not to the sport, but to the gulf stream, following the naming pattern of the previously introduced, Golf-derived Scirocco coupe; future Golf derivatives would be called Vento and Bora, other wind names.)

1983 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI side
The shape that launched a thousand knockoffs. Although to our eyes it looks more than a little like the earlier Peugeot 104, Giorgetto Giugiaro’s original Volkswagen Golf design was widely imitated, most obviously by Chrysler Europe, whose Horizon (sold as a Chrysler and a Talbot in Europe, as a Plymouth and as the Dodge Omni in the States) was not only visually and conceptually similar — albeit bigger — but was even sold in the States with a 1.7 L (104 cu. in.) Volkswagen engine.

Although there would later be cabriolets and other variations, the unit-bodied Golf was initially available only in three- or five-door hatchback form. Hatchbacks were not a new idea by any means; the rear liftgate had its roots in the sedan deliveries and commerciales of the thirties and more recently the Renault 16. The popularity of three- and five-door bodies skyrocketed in the early seventies, in part because the style lent itself to the new “supermini” class exemplified by the Fiat 127 and Autobianchi A112, giving them a level of cargo-carrying versatility exceeding that of many larger vehicles.

Chassis-wise, the Golf had MacPherson struts up front and a novel “torsion beam,” linking two trailing arms with a transverse beam that doubled as an anti-roll bar. Front disc brakes and rack-and-pinion steering were standard.

Under the hood, the Golf offered a choice of two water-cooled SOHC fours, the 801 and 827 series. Both had cast iron blocks, aluminum heads, and belt-driven cams. The Type 801 was 1,093 cc (67 cu. in.), making a modest 50 PS DIN (37 kW), while the optional Type 827, previously introduced on the Audi 80 and Volkswagen Passat, was 1,457 cc (89 cu. in.) and made 70 PS (52 kW). Both engines were tilted 15 degrees from the vertical — toward the nose for the smaller engine, toward the cowl for the 1.5-liter version — to allow a lower hood line. Both engines had a standard four-speed gearbox and a three-speed automatic was optional on the bigger gasoline engine.

None of this was extraordinary from a technological standpoint (the Simca 1100, for example, had these features in 1967), but it took Volkswagen to the first rank of European small cars, a refreshing change from the rear-engine 411 and 412, which had seemed dated even at launch. With crisp Giugiaro styling, the Golf looked like a winner.


The Volkswagen Golf went on sale in Europe in the summer of 1974 and proved to be an immediate success. It was not without its problems, but it was nearly as fun to drive as Alfa Romeo’s Alfasud and far more reliable and better built than many of its European rivals. Volkswagen sold its millionth Golf less than three years after introduction.

1983 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI front
This Volkswagen Rabbit GTI’s round headlamps are an oddity; unlike the Golf, U.S.-market Rabbits (including GTIs) had rectangular sealed-beam headlights. It seems the owner has substituted the grille from a round-headlight overseas model, which is easily done, although this car lacks the inset fog lamps that were commonly fitted to European Golf GTIs. It also lacks the American car’s front side marker lights.

The Golf came to America in early 1975, but got a new name: Volkswagen Rabbit. At launch, the Rabbit had the 1,457 cc (89 cu. in.) Type 827 engine, albeit with a Zenith carburetor rather than the European cars’ Solex, and 70 hp (52 kW), but for 1976, this was replaced with the bored-out 1,588 cc (97 cu. in.) engine shared with the Audi Fox and Volkswagen Passat. The following year, Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection replaced the carburetor, giving 78 hp (58 kW) and better ability to pass tougher U.S. emissions standards; for 1978, the engine reverted to 1,457 cc (89 cu. in.), but kept the injection, now giving 71 hp (53 kW).

The Rabbit never became as beloved or ubiquitous as the Beetle, although it sold relatively well. Unfortunately, the strength of the Deutschmark relative to the dollar meant that the only way Volkswagen could hold the line on price was to sell the Rabbit at a loss. To cut costs and improve production, Volkswagen took the unprecedented step of launched an American factory, located in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania. The new plant, which went online in 1978, was the first foreign-owned auto plant in the U.S. in 50 years, but it would not be the last.


The standard Volkswagen Golf was already entertaining to drive, particularly with the bigger engine, and it was clear that much more could be extracted from it. In the spring of 1973, Volkswagen test engineer Alfons Löwenberg convinced PR director Anton Konrad of the potential publicity value of a “Sportgolf” model along the lines of the Mini Cooper, Ford’s Lotus Cortina, and Opel’s GT/E and Rallye models.

Since the Golf was still in development and the company’s financial situation and internal politics were volatile, Konrad, Löwenberg, and a small group of allies decided to pursue the project below the radar rather than risk having it preemptively vetoed on cost grounds. It was only after developing a viable prototype, using a Scirocco coupe as a test mule, that chief development engineer Hermann Hablitzel took the chance of mentioning the Sportgolf idea to his boss, technical director Ernst Fiala.

Fiala was deeply skeptical, in part because the prototype rode and sounded like a race car (which is to say abusively stiff and obnoxiously loud), and expressed the inevitable cost concerns. With further refinement, however, Hablitzel and chassis engineer Herbert Horntrich found a compromise that was both sporty and passably civilized, so Fiala finally gave the project official approval in May 1975.

A production prototype — now dubbed Volkswagen Golf GTI — made its public debut at the Frankfurt show on September 11, 1975. Public response was enthusiastic, so a production version went on sale the following summer.

1983 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI front3q
For GTI duty, the standard Volkswagen Golf’s suspension was lowered about 20 mm (0.8 in.), the track was widened, and both springs and shocks were stiffened. Anti-roll bars were fitted both front and rear, and an oil cooler was added to the engine. (GTIs also had an oil-temperature gauge.) European models had 13-inch wheels, but the American Volkswagen Rabbit GTI substituted 14×6 alloys (requiring the pronounced fender flares seen on this car) with P185/60HR-14 Pirellis.


The Mk 1 Volkswagen Golf GTI was a straightforward but thorough revamp of the basic Golf package. The engine was superficially similar to the fuel-injected 1,588 cc (97 cu. in.) Type 827 engine found on the U.S.-market Audi Fox (and 1977 Rabbit), but had a higher 9.5:1 compression ratio, bigger valves, a hotter cam, and a standard oil cooler. In this tune, also found (in longitudinal form) in the European Audi 80 GTE, the engine made 110 PS DIN (81 kW) and 101 lb-ft (137 N-m) of torque. Since the GTI weighed only 65 lb (30 kg) more than a three-door LS, performance was brisk; Volkswagen claimed 0-62 mph (0-100 km/h) in only 9 seconds and a top speed of 113 mph (182 km/h).

Accompanying the more powerful engine was a retuned suspension that lowered the car about 0.8 inches (20 mm) and added Bilstein gas shocks and anti-roll bars front and rear. The prototype’s fat 205/60HR13 tires were sacrificed on the altar of cost savings, replaced on production cars by 175/70HR13 tires on 5.5×13 wheels, but that still required black plastic fender flares to cover the 0.4-inch (10mm) wider track. Ventilated front discs replaced the regular Golf’s solid discs and the interior was dressed up with tartan seat upholstery and a black plastic golf ball in place of the standard shift knob.

The Golf GTI was noisy and had a much stiffer ride than the standard Golf, but it took the car’s agility and performance to an entirely new level. Thanks to its light weight and uprated suspension, the GTI was as nimble as an Alfasud or Autobianchi A112 Abarth and considerably faster in a straight line; in fact, it was a match for a Datsun 280ZX or a Porsche 924, either of which was far more expensive. The Golf GTI was also a decided improvement on aging sports cars like the MGB.

More importantly, the Golf GTI was reasonably affordable — starting price was 13,850 DM (about $5,500 at contemporary exchange rates), compared to 11,420 DM for a 1.5-liter Golf GLS — and sacrificed little of the Golf’s practicality. In fact, Volkswagen claimed the GTI had better steady-state fuel economy than the less-powerful 1.5-liter carbureted cars. If you could tolerate the noise and the ride, there was no reason the GTI couldn’t be a family car.


Volkswagen’s sales organization did not see a big market for a Volkswagen Rabbit GTI, offering a conservative sales projection of 5,000 cars a year. The GTI’s combination of performance and practicality was appealing enough, however, that it did far better than that; Volkswagen had moved nearly 60,000 of them by 1979. It was surprisingly popular even in the U.K., where it was initially available only in left-hand-drive form.

Despite the Golf GTI’s international acclaim, it was not offered in the U.S. Volkswagen’s U.S. sales strategy was shaped by an influx of former GM executives, hired around the time the Westmoreland plant opened. Thanks to their influence, the Volkswagen Rabbit became progressively more Americanized, with softened suspension, softer seats, and color-keyed interior trim, sometimes in dubious taste. Following the 1979 energy crisis, a substantial number of American Volkswagens were sold with the 1,471 cc (90 cu. in.) diesel engine, which sacrificed performance for fuel economy. Volkswagen of America saw no need for a GTI.

Not everyone was so convinced. In November 1981, Motor Trend published an open letter pleading with VW of America to create a U.S. version of the European Golf GTI. Other American critics felt that the decision to withhold models like the GTI epitomized the faulty logic that was rapidly eroding Volkswagen’s U.S. sales.

Jim Fuller, who became vice president of Volkswagen of America’s Porsche + Audi Division in 1979, understood the critics’ pain, arguing that Volkswagen was doing itself no favors by diluting its Germanic character. In May 1981, VWoA put him in charge of Volkswagen to do something about it.

1983 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI tail badge
American-market Mk 1 Golfs were called Volkswagen Rabbits; the Golf name wasn’t adopted in the U.S. until the Mk 2 appeared in the 1985 model year. Thanks in part to the 5 mph (8 km/h) bumpers required by federal safety standards, the U.S. Volkswagen Rabbit GTI was some 140 lb (64 kg) heavier than its European counterpart, which made the Rabbit GTI’s power deficit that much more apparent.

Fuller wasted little time in preparing a much-belated U.S.-market version of the GTI. Dubbed Rabbit GTI, it arrived in late 1982 as a 1983 model. The Rabbit GTI featured a detuned version of the new 1,781 cc (109 cu. in.) engine recently introduced for European Golf GTIs (inter alia), making 90 hp SAE (67 kW) to the European car’s 112 PS DIN (82 kW). The U.S. car’s bigger bumpers and extra equipment — which included bigger 185/60HR14 tires on 6.0×14 alloy wheels — added 140 lb (64 kg) to the European car’s curb weight, prompting some suspension retuning.

With more mass and less power, the Rabbit GTI was naturally slower than the latest European Golf GTI, although it was about as agile. Still, with 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) times of around 10 seconds and a top speed of perhaps 106 mph (170 km/h), the hot Rabbit was significantly quicker than other U.S.-market Rabbits, not to mention contemporary performance cars like the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am with the 5.0-liter (305 cu. in., 4,999 cc) V8. At $7,990, the Rabbit GTI wasn’t the cheapest car in its class, but no rival was as well rounded. The enthusiast publications that had begged for such a car were predictably ecstatic.


Other manufacturers were by no means oblivious to the success of the Golf GTI. By the time it arrived in America, it had a growing array of competitors, including the Ford Escort XR3/XR3i, the Mitsubishi-built Dodge Colt Turbo, the MG Metro, the Lancia Delta HF, the Peugeot 205 GTi, and the Renault 5 Alpine/Gordini Turbo. By the mid-eighties, nearly every manufacturer in this market segment had at least one “hot hatch.”

The introduction of Group B rally racing in 1982 added fuel to the fire, spawning a host of technologically ambitious homologation specials. Many of these bore only the vaguest resemblance to the mundane family hatchbacks on which they were based, but they were pursued with the same enthusiasm that American manufacturers once lavished on NASCAR or Trans Am. Many of these rivals were cheaper than the Volkswagen Golf GTI, some were faster, and some offered features VW did not, but the GTI remained the standard-bearer for the hot hatch market.

1983 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI rear3q
Today, a Mk 1 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI looks tiny, but it was nearly 10 inches (254 mm) longer than the original European Golf, thanks mostly to larger bumpers. A late-model Rabbit had the same 94.5-inch (2,400mm) wheelbase as the European car, but was 155.3 inches (3,945 mm) long, 5 inches (127 mm) longer than a late European-market Mk 1 Golf and weighs about 2,070 lb (940 kg). The stub on the rear hatch is the mounting for the rear wiper/washer, which is missing on this particular car.


The second-generation Volkswagen Golf bowed in August 1983. Inevitably, Ernst Fiala was reluctant to meddle with success, opting for a cautious evolution of the original. In true Detroit fashion, the “Mk 2” Golf was significantly bigger than the Mk 1: 6.7 inches (170 mm) longer, 2.2 inches (55 mm) wider on a longer, 97.2-inch (2,470mm) wheelbase. Weight rose by more than 165 pounds (75 kg) on European cars, a hefty 250 lb (113 kg) on U.S. versions.

Although the VW board considered 10 different styling proposals, including one from Giugiaro, they finally selected the conservative update developed by design director Herbert Shäfer’s in-house team. In all, Volkswagen spent $195 million on the new car, plus an additional $575 million upgrading and modernizing the factory in Wolfsburg.

Naturally, the Golf GTI returned, now offered in both three-door and five-door forms. European models had a carry-over 1,781 cc engine, their extra weight making them somewhat slower than before. The American Golf GTI had a new 100 horsepower (75 kW) version, which wasn’t quite enough to compensate for the increased weight of the federalized Mk 2. On the plus side, both U.S. and European Golf GTIs now had four-wheel disc brakes.

That performance deficit was not enough to dampen sales of the GTI or of the Golf on which it was based, which became Europe’s best-selling car in the mid-eighties. Furthermore, the weakness of the initial car was soon rectified. In 1986, the basic Golf GTI was supplemented by a new 16V model with a 16-valve cylinder head that boosted the 1,781 cc engine to 139 hp DIN (102 kW). European models were now capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in under eight seconds and a top speed of around 130 mph (209 km/h). In 1989, there was a limited-production Golf GTI Rallye model with a 160 hp (118 kW) supercharged engine and Syncro all-wheel drive, followed in 1990 by a FWD G60 model with the same engine. There were also a few Limited models with all-wheel drive and a hotter supercharged engine.

1989 Volkswagen Golf G60 Limited front
This is one of only about 70 1989-1990 supercharged Volkswagen Golf G60 Limited models. The Limited was the ultimate Mk 2 Golf GTI; with 210 hp (154 kW), it was ran from 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in less than seven seconds and had a top speed of nearly 140 mph (225 km/h). The price was similarly impressive: more than twice that of a standard GTI. (Photo © 2006 ItsGrimUpNorth; released to the public domain by the photographer)


The second-generation U.S. Golf GTI — now called Golf rather than Rabbit — failed to win the hearts of American buyers. None of the supercharged or AWD models were ever sold in the States, leaving a milder 16V version with 123 hp SAE (92 kW) as the top performer. It was capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in around 8.5 seconds and a top speed of more than 115 mph (185 km/h), but by decade’s end, it was falling behind the pace of the latest U.S.-market sporty cars in both performance and refinement. Worse, American Volkswagens were not built to the same standards as their European counterparts, suffering a host of reliability problems that further eroded Volkswagen’s once-sterling reputation for quality.

Then, too, American buyers were cool to the Mk 2 Golf’s boxy styling. In the seventies, when the Volkswagen Rabbit first debuted, most U.S.-market cars of any size were boxy, rectangular things, but by the eighties, the trend was toward sleeker coupes and sedans. The Golf’s packaging was still superb, but American customers had come to associate boxy hatchbacks with the grim austerity of the late-seventies energy crisis, an era many were eager to forget. Even the sporting hatchbacks available in the U.S., like the Acura Integra, Ford Probe, or Mitsubishi Eclipse/Eagle Talon, were rapidly taking on more coupe-like proportions.

With high prices and styling that seemed out of touch with American tastes, Volkswagen of America floundered. As sales dropped, the Westmoreland plant ended up at less than half its capacity. VW finally shut it down in September 1988, earning great enmity from workers and their union. (Ironically, by then, Japanese manufacturers like Honda and Toyota had begun to establish their own “transplant” factories in the U.S., which would prove far more successful.) That fall, Jim Fuller was killed in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, leaving the company’s management adrift. By 1991, U.S. sales had dipped under 100,000 units a year, and by 1993, they were down to a dismal 44,000.


If VWoA was waiting for salvation from the Mk 3 Golf, it was not forthcoming. Although Volkswagen reportedly spent $1.5 billion on the third-generation Golf, after selling 12.6 million Mk 1s and Mk 2s, the company was taking no chances with the familiar formula. The Mk 3 Volkswagen Golf, introduced for 1992, followed the same pattern as the Mk 2: a bigger, heavier, sleeker version of its predecessor. That was fine for Europe, where the Golf was the gold standard for C-segment family cars, but it did nothing to help the U.S. organization. (Ironically, the revival of VW’s American business required turning the Golf into a New Beetle, but that’s another story.)

The four-cylinder Mk 3 Golf GTI was looking rather anemic thanks to unchanged power and extra weight, so Volkswagen added a new six-cylinder model, powered by VW’s unique VR6 engine. The VR6 was a V6 with its two cylinder banks set only 15 degrees apart, close enough to allow both to share a single cylinder head. With 174 hp DIN (128 kW), it gave the GTI’s straight-line performance a shot in the arm, but it didn’t help handling that seemed flabby compared to the latest competition.

Much the same was true of the Mk 4 Golf, launched in 1997. As new VW chief Ferdinand Piëch strove to take Volkswagen up-market, the Mk 4 Golf GTI offered exceptional refinement and luxury with ample power, but the memory of the nimble Mk 1 was growing dim. It also suffered in-house competition from Volkswagen’s SEAT and Skoda brands, which offered nearly identical mechanical packages — and sometimes prettier styling — for lower prices.

20032003 Volkswagen GTI side
The Mk 4 Volkswagen Golf GTI could be had with either VW’s 1.8T turbocharged four or the VR6. This is a 2003 20th Anniversary Edition, which had a 180-hp 1.8T and a six-speed manual transmission along with showy 18-inch alloy wheels. (Photo © 2007 Crzypdilly; released to the public domain by the photographer)

Volkswagen tried to rectify things with the Mk 5 Golf GTI, launched at the Frankfurt show in 2003. The Mk 5 again offered with either a turbocharged four-cylinder engine or a VR6 with up to 250 hp (184 kW). Stylistically, the Mk 5 remained unmistakably a Golf, but it had grown quite zaftig; the AWD six-cylinder R32 tipped the scales at around 3,400 pounds (1,538 kg), nearly twice the mass of a Mk 1 Golf. Still, with a new multilink independent rear suspension (replacing the old torsion beam), it had markedly better handling than the Mk 4, taking the GTI back to the forefront of its class.

Earlier this year, Volkswagen unveiled the Mk 6 Golf GTI, which is again an extremely conservative redesign of the Mk 5 with slightly more power and similarly hefty curb weight. The four-cylinder GTI still has a curb weight of over 3,000 pounds (1,360 kg), although it is claimed to be both quicker and greener than its predecessor. In Europe, it will face a host of formidable C-segment competitors, including the Peugeot 308 GT, Ford Focus RS, Renault Clio RS, Subaru Impreza WRX STI, Opel Astra OPC, Honda Civic Type R, and its own Seat Leon Cupra sibling. There is also now a thriving market in smaller B-segment hot hatches like the VW Polo GTI, RenaultSport Twingo RS, and Peugeot 207 GT Turbo.


The Mk 6 Golf and GTI are likely to remain niche items in the U.S. market. Even in Europe, the Ford Focus and Opel/Vauxhall Astra are sorely testing the Golf’s traditional dominance of the C-segment. Although VW’s U.S. sales are better than they were in the early nineties, American buyers still prefer the four-door Jetta sedan to the three- and five-door Golf. It’s significant that only Volkswagen, Ford, and Mazda still offer C-segment hatchbacks in the U.S.; most other automakers gave up offering North American versions of that body style years ago. Other than the Golf GTI, there are still a few hot hatches in the States, like Mazda’s Mazdaspeed3, but many past examples, like the Honda Civic Si three-door or Acura Integra, have disappeared or been replaced with notchback coupes or sedans.

Why? Cost is one factor. As the size and sophistication of the hot hatch has grown, so have prices. In the U.S., a 2009 GTI three-door has a base MSRP of $23,930, $1,100 more with the DSG semi-automatic gearbox. A Subaru Impreza WRX five-door starts at $26,190, while the hotter STI is over $35,000 — clearly not economy-car prices. By the nineties, insurance companies had also caught on to the hot-hatch game and started slapping punitive surcharges onto any compact with a “GT” badge, even if it had less horsepower than any number of mundane family sedans. Fuel, maintenance, and insurance are more costly, as well. Where a Rabbit GTI could return 26-27 mpg (8.7 to 9.0 L/100 km) in routine driving, a modern GTI can dip under 18 mpg (13 L/100 km) in city traffic — and on premium fuel to boot.

2009 Volkswagen GTI front 3q
The latest GTI is due Stateside in the summer of 2009. It again carries a 1,984 cc (122 cu. in.) rated at 204 hp DIN (150 kW) — probably 210 hp in the U.S. As yet, VW has announced no plans to revive the six-cylinder or AWD versions, which may be abandoned in the interests of better fuel economy and lower emissions. (Photo © 2009 Rudolf Stricker; released for all use by the photographer)

Naturally, these factors are important in Europe and Japan, too, where fuel is even more expensive and the cars even costlier. The difference is that in the States, three- and five-door hatchbacks still have the stigma of low-end cars for college students. Here, it takes a special kind of eye to appreciate the value of a GTI or STI badge, especially when the same money could get you a bigger sedan and/or a more prestigious badge. (We also cannot overlook VWoA’s record for reliability and customer service, which in recent years have been off-putting. In Europe, buyers will still pay a premium for the VW badge, but customers on this side of the Atlantic are more reticent.)

Even if the hot hatch does see a revival with a new generation of American buyers, we’re not likely to see the likes of the simple, tossable, frugal Mk 1 GTI again. It could be said that the game has simply moved on. Even subcompacts without any sporting pretensions, like the Honda Jazz/Fit, are about as quick as an early GTI and nearly as nimble while offering amenities that a Mk 1 Golf owner could scarcely imagine. Modern hot hatches are faster and more polished than ever, but the giggle-inducing immediacy of the first GTI appears to be a thing of the past, which is a shame for anyone who remembers how much fun the original could be.

# # #


Our sources included Richard Copping, VW Golf: Five Generations of Fun (Dorchester, Dorset: Veloce Publishing Ltd. 2006); Eric Dahlquist, “Big Bug,” Motor Trend Vol. 21, No. 2 (February 1969), pp. 46–48, “Declutching the BUG,” Motor Trend Vol. 20, No. 7 (July 1968), pp. 70-73, and “Volkswagen 1938-1969,” Motor Trend Vol. 21, No. 2 (February 1969), p. 44; Fred Dillinger, “VW Golf/Rabbit Sneak Preview,” Car and Driver Vol. 29, No. 6 (December 1983), p. 59; John B. Hege, The Wankel Rotary Engine: A History (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2001); Annamaria Lösch, ed., World Cars 1979 (Pelham, NY: Herald Books, 1979), and World Cars 1985 (Pelham, NY: Herald Books, 1985); Jan P. Norbye, “The new logic in small-car engineering,” Popular Science Vol. 206, No. 2 (February 1975): 56–59; “Preise der neuen VW-Modelle Jahrgang 1977,” Auto Motor und Sport 16/1976 (6 August 1976): 14; Graham Robson and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Volkswagen Chronicle (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, Ltd., 1996); Werner Schrut, “Kölns Kleinster: Wie gut ist der neue Mini von Ford? Auto Motor und Sport 14/1976 (7 July 1976): 32–42; Edoard Seidler, “Dr. Kurt Lotz: Vorstandsvorsitzender of Volkswagen: The man who thinks beyond the Bug,” Motor Trend Vol. 21, No. 8 (August 1969): 18–22, 96; “Overseas Report: Who Wants NSU?” Motor Trend Vol. 21, No. 5 (May 1969): 46–47; and “The VW 411: Still another bug. Only larger,” Motor Trend Vol. 21, No. 2 (February 1969), p. 45; “Upheaval of an empire: How Lotz went out and Leiding came in,” Autocar 25 November 1971, pp. 44-47; Volkswagen AG, “The Volkswagen GTI – The True Story Behind Number 1,” reprinted at VW Vortex, 25 October 2004, www.billswebspace. com, accessed 30 May 2009, and “History of the origins of the first Golf GTI,” n.d., vwphaetonfan.blogspot. com/ 2009/03/golf-gti-in-depth.html, accessed 30 May 2009; Mark Wan, “Volkswagen Golf Mark IV,” AutoZine.org, 17 October 2002, www.autozine. org/Archive/ Volkswagen/old/Golf_Mk4.html, accessed 3 June 2009), “Volkswagen Golf V,” 1 January 2007, www.autozine. org/ Archive/Volkswagen/old/Golf_Mk5.html, accessed 30 May 2009, and “Volkswagen Golf VI,” 2 June 2009, www.autozine. org/Archive/ Volkswagen/new/Golf_VI.html, accessed 3 June 2009). Additional details came from Wikipedia®: en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Volkswagen_Golf_Mk2, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Volkswagen_Golf_Mk3, and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Volkswagen_Golf_Mk4, accessed 3 June 2009.Motor Trend‘s plea for a U.S. GTI appeared in the November 1981 issue of that magazine. That article is reprinted in VW Golf GTI 1976-1991 Limited Edition Extra, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, Surrey: Brooklands Books Ltd., 2005).

We also consulted the following period road tests: Philip Turner, “Injected VWs top 110 mph,” Motor 19 June 1976; John Bolster, “Outstanding new VWs,” Autosport 17 June 1976; “AutoTest: Volkswagen Golf GTI,” Autocar 12 March 1977; Jeremy Walton, “The Golf GTI: A superb 110 m.p.h. VW,” Motor Sport March 1977; “Long Term Test: The Golf game,” CAR October 1980; “Test extra: Volkswagen Golf GI: Still sparklingly smooth,” Autocar 4 April 1981; Jim McCraw, “Road Test: Golf GTI,” Motor Trend November 1981; Rich Ceppos, “Preview Test: Volkswagen Rabbit GTI: The car we’ve all been waiting for,” Car and Driver November 1982; “RoadTest: Volkswagen Golf GTi,” Motor 27 November 1982; “Volkswagen Rabbit GTI: Street racer in a bunny suit,” Road & Track November 1982; “CAR Test: VW Golf 1,8 GTI, Five-Speed,” CAR South Africa January 1983; Mark Hughes, “Playing better Golf,” Autosport January 1983; “RoadTest: Volkswagen Golf GTI,” Motor 5 May 1984; “Volkswagen GTI: A pocket pistol to win the West, and everywhere else,” Car and Driver March 1985; “Road Test: Volkswagen Golf GTi 16V,” The Motor 13 December 1986; “Road Impressions: VW Golf GTI 16V,” Motor Sport February 1987; “Volkswagen GTI 16V: The long-awaited 4-valve-head sports sedan,” Road & Track June 1987; Rich Ceppos, “Volkswagen GTI 16V: Fighting the good fight,” Car and Driver August 1987; Mark Harrop, “Master stroke,” Autocar 13 March 1991; Tiff Needell, “Four wheels good…” Autocar 21 March 1991; and John Evans, “Buying Used: Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk II,” Autocar 16 October 1996, all of which are reprinted in VW Golf GTI 1976-1991 Limited Edition Extra, and “Battlefield (Group Test: Strada Abarth 130TC, Escort XR3i, Delta HF Turbo, Astra GTE, Golf GTi),” What Car? August 1984: 26–34; “Giant Test: VW Golf GTI -v- Ford Escort XR3 -v- Alfasud 1.5Ti,” CAR January 1981: 58–64; “GroupTest: Round Three,” Motor 25 June 1983: 14–19; Georg Karcher, “The Poor Relations,” CAR March 1983: 74–77; John McCormick, “The Duellists: VW Golf 1.8 GTi -v- Ford Escort XR3i,” CAR March 1983: 69–74; “Pretty Face; Off the Pace (Giant Test),” CAR March 1985: 82–89; Don Sherman, “VW Rabbit, 1976-Style,” Car and Driver Vol. 21, No. 8 (February 1976): 34–35; “Test Match: Ford Escort XR3i, Toyota Corolla GT, Vauxhall Astra GTE, Volkswagen Golf GTi,” Fast Lane July 1986: 48–55; and “The General Rearms (Giant Test: Ford Escort XR3i -v- Renault 11 Turbo -v- Vauxhall Astra GTE -v- Volkswagen Golf GTi),” CAR May 1987: 134–147, which are not.

For the record, the author owns a Mazda3 (albeit not a hatchback or the Mazdaspeed version that was a rival to the Mk 5 and Mk 6 Golf GTI) and years ago was compensated by a Mazda marketing agency for participating in a couple of owner focus groups related to that model.

Exchange rate data for the dollar and the mark came from Harold Marcuse, “Historical Dollar-to-Marks Currency Conversion Page” (19 August 2005, UC Santa Barbara, www.history.ucsb. edu/ faculty/ marcuse/ projects/ currency.htm, accessed 30 July 2009); the dollar-to-sterling rate was estimated based on data from Werner Antweiler, “PACIFIC Exchange Rate service, Foreign Currency Units per 1 U.S. Dollar, 1948-2009” (2009, University of British Columbia, fx.sauder. ubc.ca). All equivalencies cited in the text are approximate and are provided for illustration and informational purposes only — this is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!


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  1. Interesting article as usual. But believe the Polo GTI is the current successor to the original Golf you write about. It is some four meters in length and has 150 hp. Fun to toss around and has all the attributes to talk about. Also I would argue the FIAT 128 was originator of the FWD hatchback class. Not VW.

    1. Oh, VW definitely did not invent the FWD hatchback C-segment, although the Golf did come to be its standard-bearer.

  2. Just discovered your site, and am thoroughly enjoying your takes on automotive history. But as the happy owner of a 06 GTI, I have to disagree with your trashing of the late models. I agree it’s not a bare bones econosport, but that’s a very good thing. My last main driver was an 01 Miata. The bare bones econosport thing gets old. The GTI is sort of a modern sleeper, like maybe a 69 Chevelle with a large engine would have been in the 70s. Looks like a normal bla car, returns 29 mpg in normal driving for me, can go grocery shopping easily and has plenty of interior room and above average luxury…but the torquey engine feels like a small V8 and I can smoke anything short of expensive Corvettes/Porsches/flat out muscle cars, especially because they don’t expect it. It’s fine with me if it remains a relatively unknown niche car…keeps the price down on the used ones and I like to be anonymous. :)

    1. My complaint with the Mk5 and Mk6 GTIs is not so much that they’re not bare-bones econosports — very few things are, at this point — but that even by the rather corpulent standards of modern C-segment cars, it’s a portly thing. There’s also a lot to dislike about VW these days, at least in the U.S. (It’s the gold standard in Europe, but here, the reputation for dubious reliability and awful customer service is daunting.) From a product standpoint, I’m more fond of the new Polo GTI, which is itself hardly bare bones, but strikes me as a more reasonable package in size and mass.

  3. I like the size of the GTI. I think of it as the successor to midsize cars like the Chevelle SS and GTO in today’s unfortunately downsized world. It’s a good sized car with plenty of engine and plenty of space, leaving out the flash and pizzaz that the SS and GTO type cars leaned on because their market was kids. As I said, I drove a Miata for years as a daily driver and still have it for fun. It’s much more comfortable in the bigger GTI for daily use. Haven’t been in a Polo, but from pics I gather it’s much smaller? Haven’t had a bit of trouble with it or the 09 Rabbit/Golf we also have, and for the time being the bad VW rep works well for us consumers- if more people realized what the Mk 5 and 6 are like, the prices would climb. It’s all about buying a car WHILE its’ rep is being made…not after. See old Civics as compared to new Civics.

  4. Agreed, the size of the new cars is better for use as a family car now. All current cars in the US are much larger than they used to be in the 70’s and 80’s, they’re starting to get back on par with 1920’s cars like the massive Phaeton. So it’s likely they’ll never go back to bare bones econoboxes, but not because of size. As technology has progressed, you couldn’t imagine now, buying a company’s staple car and not having at least 4 air bags and ABS as standard. Air Con and other slews of gadgetry are assumed to be standard now too, that has to be fitted into a larger package. Volkswagen is just giving the people what they want, what they’ve always done, they are after all, the “People’s Car”. However, there are no more modest, coy little cars, that relationship you had with your little MKI golf could never be had with a new car, with extensive technical refinements its almost impossible. The days of the little hot hatch are gone, and with the impending economic crisis it looks like there might never be hope for one again, there’d be no money in it. Even though us car enthusiasts would pounce on it in a heartbeat.

  5. I have had exactly the same experience as Michael Morley with my four-door ’08 GTI. Good gas mileage, averaging around 27 in mixed highway and city driving.

    It definitely reminds me of the Honda ’86 CRX SI I drove for several years in the late 80s.

    I have had no issue with either the car or the dealer, and I have over 40k on it.

    I have owned a couple of Miatas, a couple of 3 series BMWs, an Acura TL, an ’02 Honda Civic SI hatchback, a ’92 Plymouth Sundance with the Duster package and a few others I don’t care to remember. The GTI is the best balance of performance, economy and practicality of all of them. I absolutely love this car.

  6. Good takes.
    I bought the original GTI in black in ’83, and burned up the mountains of CA with it until starting a family. New ones sure are nice, but it is a different car…
    And if new ones get 28mpg, my ’90 Olds gets that too, but the Trofeo is slower in acceleration…

  7. With a few tweaks, earlier Rabbits such a my 1978 with the 1456 cc “mountain motor” could outdrag the first US GTIs, probably because 78s only weighed about 1750 pounds. No A/C, power steering or power brakes. My best quarter mile time was 17.3 seconds. And this was with the ignition cutting out at 5300 rpm. I was going through the traps in 3rd gear and still beating 305 Novas and S10 pickups. I later determined that the ignition problem was a faulty fuse panel, the bane of that era’s Rabbits. But by that time I had blown the tranny which was an expensive repair. I never made it bacck to the strip to try to break 17 sec.

    Four-wheel disc brakes were not only not needed, they had the opposite effect of lengthening braking distances rather than shortening them. If you adjusted the rear drums snug so that you had good brake peddle feel, you would experience premature rear lockup under hard braking. This could get exciting if the road were wet. In fact, in 1984 our Bilstein Rabbit Cup car took the pole at Summit Point, WV. After the qualifying effort the driver requested a tad more rear brake to help rotate the car. When we went to adjust the rears we realized that they hadn’t been adjusted at all. We had taken the pole with no rear brakes. Even with a full roll cage we had to ballast our Cup car to insure we met the 1750 pound post-race weigh in

  8. Excellent, as your articles usually are, but I must register my disagreement with your description of the Mk. V GTI as "hefty" and poor on gas mileage. I am the owner of an ’08 Mk. V which is nearing 45,000 miles. My car, the four-cylinder version with a manual transmission, is rated at 23/29 by the EPA. In my daily commute–20 miles one-way, a combination of city streets, country back road, and freeway–I see about 27-28 MPG average. On a recent road trip with my youngest son, I got an honest 31.5 MPG from a four-hour run at 70 MPH. I tend to be a bit lead-footed, and I’m sure I could squeeze another MPG or two out of it if I backed off the throttle a bit.

    The curb weight is what it is, but in my experience the car feels much lighter than that. Hustling briskly down a twisty back road, it feels just like my old ’85 Honda CRX–only with better brakes.

    1. Well, even quite large and heavy cars can get decent mileage on cruising — which is more a function of gearing and aerodynamics than weight. On a trip in a rented Pontiac Grand Prix in 2006, for instance, the GP managed mileage in the high 20s despite its 3800 V6 engine and substantial bulk, thanks largely to amazingly tall gearing that had the engine snoring at 1800 rpm at legal freeway speeds.

      Tastes vary, of course, but I think both the Golf and particularly the modern Jetta (which, embarrassingly, is heavier than a Corvette Z06) have a sense of bulk and heft that is not pleasing. The GTI manages to disguise its mass better than a 2.5 Jetta, but I can’t escape the feeling that it’s heavier than it needs or ought to be.

  9. Your article is well written. I am a owner of a 82 Rabbit with a 2.0L 16V and all the other fixings to go with it. I love it’s simplicity, it has no stereo, no power this or power that. I just get in, rev it up and have fun. I think that all the frills in newer cars have taken away from the driving experience and made it into a mundane task. VW would do well to remake the MK 1 and keep it a simple, fast, fun car, that can smoke most other cars on the road. MK 1 FOREVER!

  10. Have just been reading this fine article about the Golf.
    As an apprentice in a VW shop in Denmark in the 70′ i can remember the first Golf equipped with drum brakes in the front. This was only the small engine version.
    Later there was serious problem with rust, i have heard that VW bought cheap body plates in Eastern Germany.
    Also remember that the glass of the front lights fell of in hot weather. Think it was “Saturnus” from Eastern Germany.
    But it was a funny period in my life.

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